NEW YORK – Thierry Henry never realized he was running away to join the circus.
In the summer of 2010, the superstar striker figured he would join the New York Red Bulls , turning his back on a glittering European club career at Arsenal and Barcelona and reportedly turning down offers from a slew of major clubs. As he put it to me at the time: "There were a thousand teams that wanted me."
Instead, Henry chose the Red Bulls. He had seemingly grown weary of the spotlight. He retired from the sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-anarchic French national team. He'd come to MLS on a long-term contract - reported to run for four and a half years, running through the 2014 season - and gradually wind down his career. He could live in his beloved New York, escape the perpetual media glare, have a life again. And he'd play some soccer.
Henry had plenty of ambitions remaining. In an interview ahead of the 2011 season, Henry assured me he wasn't coming to New York as a tourist. He said he had no illusions or aspirations of helping soccer make its long-awaited mainstream breakthrough. "I'm no ambassador," he said. "I didn't invent the game. I'm not going to reinvent the game. I'm not going to change anything."
But he did want to help build something and leave behind a legacy. He hoped to add identity to the Red Bulls, a club that lacked relevance and a major trophy, let alone a philosophy and style to call its own.
He encountered something very different.
Henry unwittingly stepped into a swirl of drama that has only accelerated since his arrival. The Red Bulls were never the paradigm for stability. But when they landed Henry, they became big-time. Big-time coverage followed. The team is covered by every major news outlet in New York City, and while the scrutiny is nothing like that of England, Spain or France, the searing lens nevertheless grated on Henry. He was annoyed by the amount of access the media had to him and probably more annoyed when the media called him out when he didn't deliver. That was intensified when Henry dubbed Dane Richards, a mercurial career MLSer who caught fire for a few months, the team's go-to player. Given Henry's $5.6 million salary, as compared to Richards' $156,000, that wouldn't do.
Meanwhile, the front office was routinely shaken up as attendance at the new $200 million Red Bull Arena disappointed Red Bull's Austrian headquarters. Season ticket sales proved an outright disaster. The team as a whole proved streaky at best and erratic at worst, going through long slumps and only narrowly squeezing into the playoffs in 2011.
Henry maintained a tense relationship with the club's hardcore fans, exchanging glares and melodramatic gestures, and was visibly irked by the gap in abilities between himself and his teammates.
A series of on-field incidents only made matters worse. Early into his tenure, Henry kicked a ball out of the hands of FC Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman following a goal, injuring the goalkeeper for several weeks. A few weeks ago, he headbutted Sporting Kansas City's Kei Kamara during a scuffle. Henry has generally come off as unpleasant and unsporting in competition. Several reporters heard Henry cuss out jeering and sometimes even cheering members of the crowd during games. Mild disciplinary action from the league further inflamed matters; it seemed there was a double-standard at play.
Paired with the petulance and lack of interest of fellow Barca-acquisition and Designated Player Rafa Marquez (who, too, has gotten into scuffles with opponents and flat-out body-slammed one, breaking his collarbone) Henry has been both the face of the club and at the same time its worst advertisement.
He has been about as productive as one can ask from a 35-year old striker with a balky Achilles heel and an awful lot of miles on his legs. In spite of a slow start during which Henry was out of shape, he has scored 31 goals in 62 MLS games and picked up 19 assists - 12 of them coming this year - as Henry has vacillated between acting as a deep playmaker and as an advanced forward.
But the Red Bulls aren't much better off as a professional soccer club for the dawning of the Henry era.
In these upcoming playoffs, Henry will have his third chance at leaving a lasting legacy in New York by helping it claim its first piece of silverware. Failing that, the only identity he will have helped forge after two and a half productive yet controversial years is one of dysfunction.